An Interview with Troy Polamalu
The Mane Man
Pittsburgh Magazine, August 2009
JOURNEY TO ORTHODOXY
Football is a given: How was this year’s Super Bowl experience versus XL? Tomlin versus Cowher? Goals for the coming season?
Fatherhood is new in Polamalu’s life since the birth of his son, Paisios, named after a beloved contemporary Greek Orthodox monastic, Elder Paisios, on Oct. 31, 2008. Has daddy-dom been life-changing? Will he encourage his son to play professional sports? How’s that
beautiful new mom doing?
And last but not least: Faith. In order to properly meet Polamalu where he lives, this is the requisite, the grounding force that gives meaning to everything he does, every play he makes. Polamalu’s evident gratitude to the one who made him is marbled throughout our talk – from his training regime to his travels to Mount Athos, a monastic site in Greece, a place he calls “heaven on earth.”
While he has a reputation for being one of the NFL’s fiercest players, Polamalu would prefer “Tasmanian angel” over “Tasmanian devil” because his ball game is about glorifying God. “Football is part of my life but not life itself,” he says. “Football doesn’t define me. It’s what I do [and] how I carry out my faith.”
Whether shooting a Coke Zero commercial or running up the sand hills on Manhattan Beach to train – which he’s probably off to do after this interview – Polamalu, 27, is refreshingly modest and introspective, choosing his words as precisely as he picks his spots on the gridiron. He’s intense when the occasion calls for it, and reveals with ease the depth of his character while philosophizing about matters outside the huddle. At the same time, there’s a lightness about Polamalu that gives you the impression that he’s not taking himself or his high-profile lifestyle too seriously.
Even after the Steelers gave him the biggest contract in team history, more than $30 million, extending him through 2011, nothing major has changed in the Polamalus’ lives. They’re still in the same house. He still trains with the same trainer. The number of commercial endorsements has increased as his popularity has soared, but Polamalu is cautious not to let this encroach on family time. The Polamalus live simply and quietly.
Has becoming a father changed your life?
I think becoming a parent encourages people to change their lives, but even before I was a father, I had an interest in bettering myself as a husband and as a person. The intensity is greater when you have a child, but I’ve always tried to be conscious of myself. In that sense, not much has changed in how I view my life. Obviously there’s another member of our family. The cool thing is that I’m able to bring my son when I work out, so training takes a lot longer!
Eight months old and already training?
Yeah, he sits and watches me. I think it’s important for a child to see his parents work. One day, God willing, he’ll be able to see a nice house, a nice car, good food – things that I didn’t have growing up. It’s important for him to realize that these things are obtained first of all through the grace of God but also through hard work. I come from [a childhood] where I would put every condiment imaginable on my cheeseburger just so I could feel more full. There’s value in that struggle. Parents don’t want their kids to experience that, but honestly I want my kid to experience that. I think parents have a tendency to give their kids everything they didn’t have. In turn, they grow up lacking important qualities – like courage and perseverance. If you grow up with any type of wealth or anything that is just given to you, you [may] lack these qualities. But first of all, it’s most important for Paisios to have a spiritual foundation.
You view your parental role as being a role model spiritually as well?
As a parent, I don’t want to talk out of both sides of my mouth; I don’t want to act a certain way and be another way. Not everybody has a material struggle, but everyone has a spiritual struggle. So with my son, it’s important for him to first understand the spiritual struggle and, as a result of that, know how to [deal with] the physical struggles that he has in his life – whether it’s dealing with not enough or too much of something.
So it’s a matter of being an example?
I think talking is overrated. Anybody in the world can talk about doing anything. The hardest thing is to do it. It’s important for my son to understand, for example, why we pray, why we go to church. It’s important for him to grow up in an atmosphere of watching us do it, to understand that nothing is given to you in life. Everything must be worked at in order to be obtained – whether it’s something material or it’s salvation.
If Paisios had the calling to become an Orthodox priest and not a fullback, you’d be elated?
Of course. Obviously the [athletic] pedigree is there in my family and my wife’s [and] people give me a hard time: “Troy, man, what if your son’s not a good athlete, or he grows up and he’s not big?” But I say, “How big do you need to be in order to be a priest?”
You’re not saying, “I want my son to grow up and be an athlete.”
No, not at all. I would like him to play sports because there are important lessons to be learned through sports – those qualities of perseverance, courage, hard work and ethics.
How is your wife, Theodora, adjusting to being a mom?
Oh, she’s the best. It’s given me a whole new perspective on my wife. Obviously, she’s had a lot of responsibility in dealing with me and my inadequacies. But now, to watch her wake up every night and feed him . . . you know, as a mother, you kind of give up your whole life. Obviously, I’m able to still do what I do. I play football. I do things that surround football. I get to train.
Some dads are naturals and others don’t know how to react once the baby is home. Do you feel comfortable in this role?
Oh yeah. I want to feed him, play with him, do all those fun dad things. We go swimming in the ocean. He’s crawling, but he’s not surfing yet.
Do you do diapers?
Oh, I hand him off to Grandma for that.
What is your greatest wish for your child?
Without a question, my greatest wish would be for him to understand the spiritual struggle and to be a pious Orthodox Christian. That’s what I want for myself, as well. Sometimes parents want their children to be what they never were. And that’s one thing that I am gracious for Paisios to have: that he’s able to grow up in the Orthodox church around monastics and priests that I was never able to experience as a kid – to grasp that, not take it for granted and really culture that.
Do you and Theodora still find time to garden, even with your new addition?
Yes, we’re growing tomatoes, broccoli, sunflower seeds, oregano, basil, sage, peppermint.
Still growing orchids?
I’ve tried but I don’t have enough patience for orchids. They’re so sensitive. Here’s what happened recently: It’s funny, I spent all last year trying to nurse this orchid to health. Finally spring comes along and I thought, I give up, I’m putting it outside. A month later, I come back to Pittsburgh and guess what? I look outside and it’s blooming like crazy! I can’t do what only God can do.
How would you define the spiritual struggle you referred to earlier?
It’s the struggle of good and evil, and with that comes the struggle with greed, jealousy, materialism, sexual morality, pride, all these types of struggles that we face every day, in every second of the day.
Your faith continues to evolve. In the past few years, you formally converted to Greek Orthodox. Where do you worship?
My wife and I go often to a Greek Orthodox monastery in Saxonburg [Nativity of the Theotokos], a monastery in Arizona, and several parishes in Pittsburgh. We like the monastery because it’s most serene there and we can talk to the monastics. To see their daily struggles really fascinates me.
What intrigues you about the monastic life?
For me, faith is to be simple in this way. If anybody believes in God and believes in the Holy Bible, how can you be in any grey area? I’m talking about myself here, how can “I” think one way and do another way? To me, Christianity is very black and white. Either you take it serious or you don’t take it serious at all. The monks’ example to me is that they take salvation seriously in every facet of their lives. This is a model for me as a Christian and for my family on how to live our lives.
Can you give an example of what inspires you?
There are so many, and I don’t mean to imply that everybody needs to live like a monk in order to be saved. For the Greek Orthodox monks, examples would be: they wear beards to cover their face so they’re not vain; they don’t have mirrors because they don’t want to look at themselves from being vain; they wear black because black is humility; they seldom talk because they don’t want to be proud or arrogant; they keep their eyes down because they don’t want their eyes to wander; they pray constantly.
The struggle between good and evil is very materialized with them. A lot of people have an understanding of this but it’s really just an oral proclamation that there is good and evil. To the monks, it’s hard as rock. It’s something they grasp daily. This is what I see in them and it amazes me: they’ve taken their struggle so seriously and in turn there’s so much grace in it. When you sit down with these monks, so much peace and love exudes from them.
Their faith is their passion. It makes me wonder if some day you might have that same calling.
I don’t think that everyone is meant to be a monastic. There are people who are meant to be married and those who are meant to be monastics. However, they are examples to us of how to live a pious life.
On my own spiritual path, I’ve felt at times that there’s a certain allure to that serene, sequestered lifestyle.
Yes, but I think it’s an understatement to say that their struggle is more intensified because their path is more intensified. There are tons of stories about these monks who have physical battles with these demons that fight them. It’s like, oh my goodness. In turn, they live in God’s grace so much that you think, no way, how can they have such angelic lives? Like the monks on Mt. Athos in Greece – this place is heaven on earth, there’s so much grace there. For 1,500 years, this place has been devoted solely to Christian spirituality. It’s untouched. Not even women are allowed there.
This is the place you visited two summers ago while on a pilgrimage?
Yes. There’s an amazing monk who lives in Arizona – Abbot Ephraim, my spiritual father. He’s the epitome of Mt. Athos brought to America.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from him so far?
That you cannot have an experience of God without humility.
Let’s talk about your summer training schedule. The California vibe is so different from Pittsburgh, and your training is different from your teammates’. What you do works for you because you show up at training camp shipshape, and coach Mike Tomlin is cool with it. Why do you choose to train in California?
California is a great atmosphere for training. First of all, being able to train in sunshine is a blessing. There’s so much energy out here, kind of a rat-race mentality. When I come here, my mind flips into that mode. I’m part of that rat race. I grasp onto it to push me in training. Also, I have a revolutionary trainer in Marv Marinovich out here.
You’ve been training with him since your USC days. What makes his training regime unique?
He’s got the gift to be able to look at a body and know what it needs. Other trainers are starting to adapt his revolutionary style that includes flexibility, strength, speed, balance. When people see the workout, they say it looks weird, but it correlates. A hack squat or bench press can never really correlate to a real athletic movement in a sport, but put a squat or bench into a plyometric movement or some appropriate action within it, then it correlates.
As an athlete, your life is your body. You have to know what your weak points are. I’ve become very sensitive to how my body reacts to certain supplements, certain foods. The only person I’ve ever entrusted that to is Marvin. He’s the only person who could tell me, “Troy, stop eating that and start eating this,” or “Troy, you’re beat. Go home and get some rest,” or “Troy, this new [machine] you’re doing is not good for you. Stop doing it.” I work out three to four hours every morning, then I do a 15-minute session before I go to bed.
Is Marv your nutrition wiz as well?
No question, and he’s not a trainer who tells me to eat healthy then goes and eats Whoppers and drinks soda. He’s more strict on his diet than anybody I’ve ever seen. He hasn’t eaten an unhealthy thing in 50 years.
What does he espouse? Vegan? Raw?
He’s not totally vegan, and he does eat a lot of raw foods. He encourages me to do this and to eat organic. But he also knows that within my mind, it’s important for me to have a release; so he’ll say go ahead and have a little junk food here and there, just know that when it comes time to crack down, you have to crack down. He understands the psychology of an athlete. If I train too much, he’ll say, “Troy, you need to get a life!”
So he’s a nutritionist, a sports physiologist and a psychologist.
And that’s important. Thank God he’s gotten me to this point where I’m able to play my seventh NFL season [this year].
Anything new in your training this year?
I spoke with Olympic gold-medal decathlete Bryan Clay at a Nike symposium. I approached him with a lot of questions about training and really took in what he had to say, because decathletes have to do every move and coordinate every energy system from sprints to hurdles to long jump, high jump, pole vault. An athlete like that can play in every sport.
Last season was pretty spectacular, with the Super Bowl win and everything leading up to it. It seems as if you allowed yourself to relax and enjoy this win more than Super Bowl XL.
This year was amazing in that way. It was a fun year for our whole team. We never had the burden of having to win the Super Bowl. Coach Tomlin is the best in that way. He’s like my trainer. He’s everything – a psychologist and a great coach. He prepares us by pushing or relaxing our team at just the right times. He has the maturity in his second year of coaching that coach [Bill] Cowher had in his later years.
Take me back to that AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens when you made that fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown.
It was awesome. To experience something like that in front of your own fans is a gift from God really. It was exciting for me personally because it was the first game that my son had come to watch me play and the first game my wife had attended in a while. As soon as I crossed the end zone, I pointed at them. I was so happy for my son. I couldn’t believe he was able to experience that. So when he sees [the reel] someday, I can say, “See that, son? I’m pointing right at you and your mom.”
It seems as if professional football is a great forum for being able to feel the full range of emotions as a human being – everything from bliss to anguish – so intensely, and the world is watching. Is that part of the appeal and what gives you such passion for the sport?
Yeah, you do feel the whole range.
Athletes who are involved in physical sports such as hockey or mixed martial arts ride the emotional highs and lows, as well as the physical highs and lows. It’s a long fight, a full season. You go through major injury after major injury. It’s like, ah man, my Achilles has been messed up for four weeks straight, then all of a sudden my left knee is bothering me. My Achilles is not healed yet, but I’m thinking about my left knee because that’s the worst thing at the moment, then it’s my right shoulder.
You move through these pains throughout the season. That’s probably why the worst fans of football are the players’ wives. It’s like, “Man, this sucks. My husband is hurting all the time.” And it’s no fun for them to experience either.
Any personal goals for this season?
During these two Super Bowls, honestly, my experience wasn’t so much of being happy for myself, like oh, I finally got it. I’ve always been happy for my teammates. These guys are so passionate about football and being Pittsburgh Steelers. The joy for me is seeing my teammates have that fulfillment. To see them experience that again this year is obviously the pull we all have.
How about those Pens?
When I was watching the final Stanley Cup game, my heart was pounding – with 15 minutes in the game and we’re up by two. That’s too much time! Hockey is the greatest spectator sport ever. It’s nonstop action. In the last minutes, holding my son in front of the TV, I said, “Son, you’re going to watch history right now.” I was so nervous. It was crazy! I can honestly tell you I was more nervous in those final moments than I was sitting on the sidelines in Tampa. Sid and Evgeni – they’re so young, it’s like having LeBron [James] and Kobe [Bryant] in Pittsburgh – then to see them win it! That’s why Pittsburghers are so passionate about sports. We have these teams that do well.
Back in the day, there were always championships that came through this city, even with the Buccos. Now, hopefully, that tradition will start up again – especially now that my son is a true Pittsburgher.